On March 11, San Jose Earthquakes’ rookie JJ Koval made his home debut. After the game, Koval’s family and group of friends eagerly waited for Koval to come through the corridor leading to the locker room.
An hour passed.
While most of the players quickly exited the field, Koval stayed to interact with fans. He finally appeared in the corridor. With a smile, he stopped for every autograph and selfie request, and thanked the wide-eyed fans.
A Camarillo, Calif., native and who grew up as a L.A. Galaxy fan, Koval remembers waiting for hours to get the autographs of Cobi Jones and Brian Rowe. “We looked up to the players so much,” Koval said. “Now, I’m on the other side of the fence.”
For Koval, timing was everything. After a series of injuries, the Quakes needed a right fullback. Although traditionally a midfielder, Koval was the answer. “At such a young age, he definitely has a veteran head on himself,” Chris Wondolowski, the Earthquakes all-star and team captain, said in an article on MLSsoccer.com.
About halfway into season, Koval, the ninth overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft, has established himself in the league. The Quakes have welcomed the rookie to the “family.” Teammate Alan Gordon, an 11-year MLS veteran, has “adopted” Koval and fellow rookie, Joe Sofia, as his “sons.”
“It’s pretty fun,” Koval said of Gordon. “He’s looking out after us. He makes sure we’re doing the right things.” Gordon can be heard proudly cheering, “That’s my boy out there!”
On the Quakes, the players range from a 35-year-old with a family to the 21-year-old Koval who is fresh out of Stanford. “I relate to the other players as a student, but I’m also a teammate,” Koval said. “I try to learn from them as much as possible because they’ve been there so many years. But at the same time I’m here to play as much as I can and contribute to the team now.”
Koval was a four-year starter and team captain his senior year. Assistant Coach Nick Kirchhof believes Stanford was lucky to have Koval on the team. “JJ was overlooked … they missed out,” Kirchhof said referring to other college coaches. “He always had a positive energy.”
Although not the fastest player, the fit Koval can cover ground. “Most of my game is technical,” he said. “I want the ball at my feet, make good passes and start the attack.” Always aggressive, his Stanford teammates jokingly called him “Bone Saw” — the professional wrestler who fights Spiderman in a cage match. “He always gets into tackles,” Austin Meyer, a former Stanford teammate, said.
Entering his senior year, Koval didn’t have high hopes of being drafted or even being selected to go to the MLS Player Combine, an invitational tryout for the top 50 Division 1 seniors to showcase their skills to MLS coaches.
“Publicly, I wasn’t really on anyone’s radars,” Koval said, remembering the online player rankings. “I didn’t want to get too excited thinking (about being drafted). It might not happen.”
Koval led Stanford to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 and earned All-Pac-12 First Team. The Quakes took notice of what he could bring.
The road to professional soccer
The day finally came. After frequently checking for the Combine invitee list, Koval was eating lunch when his mother called.
“JJ, you won’t believe what I just saw online,” Lisa Koval said, both laughing and crying. “You were invited to the Combine!”
“I was happier for my parents than for me,” Koval said. “I remember other parents telling them that they’re crazy investing so much in soccer. For it to all pay off, they got the tangible award for all of their effort.”
The MLS Combine in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was to take place Jan. 9 to 14 giving Koval a month to prepare. With his teammates on holiday break, Koval tirelessly trained by himself. As a result, he entered the Combine as one of the most fit players.
“With the ninth pick of the first round of the 2014 MLS SuperDraft, the San Jose Earthquakes select from Stanford University…” Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, announced at the SuperDraft in Philadelphia.
Koval quickly searched the room to see if another Stanford teammate was there.
“…Midfielder JJ Koval.” His dedication and hard work had paid off.
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” 1 Corinthians 10:31.
Written in sharpie on the heels of his cleats, Koval said the Bible verse “sums up what I want to be.” He taps the back of his cleats before every game.
Raised in a Catholic church, Koval says faith is the most important part of his life. He prays before every game — and not for a win or even to play well. Instead, Koval thanks God for another day and opportunity, and the ability to do the things he can.
“It enables me, as a soccer player, to give everything I’ve got, getting better every day. I don’t have this fear of failure that if I were to fail, my dream is crushed and everything is over. I know that this [soccer] isn’t the most important thing in my life. But it’s a passion that God’s given me,” Koval said.
‘There’s no such word as can’t’
After starting three games in a row, Koval returns to the bench.
This only motivates Koval to work even harder. “My parents have taught me that ‘there’s no such word as can’t,'” Koval said.
“I don’t see it as a negative. I want to be on the field all the time and by pushing for that, I should be pushing others to get better too.”